EVERETT — Mysa Tran would have graduated from medical school in New York City on May 11.
Instead, she stocks coolers and pours beer at Riverview Market & Cafe in Lowell.
She works long hours, similar to her life as a doctor if she wouldn’t have quit halfway through the program. But she’s with her family and her 15-month-old baby. And that’s what matters.
“I am happy with my life right now, with my little daughter,” said Tran, a 29-year-old in a pink T-shirt and black-framed glasses. “As a doctor, you can’t carry a baby with you.”
She can, because she owns the place.
“I never thought I would come back here, work here, open a business here,” she said. “Life is unpredictable.”
Change of plans
Tran was 17 when she moved with her parents and three siblings from Ho Chi Minh City to Lynnwood for a better life.
She had to learn English, and didn’t finish at Lynnwood High School until she was 20.
With a childhood dream to be a surgeon, she joined the Army Reserve and went to the University of Washington Bothell on the pre-med track, earning a degree in biology in 2014.
After receiving a scholarship that covered much of the cost of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, her future seemed set as the first person in her family to get an advanced degree.
Two years later, she left medical school behind.
“I realized it was not for me,” Tran said.
“It was really stressful. Manhattan is really cool, but it’s just so different, especially when you have no family around. I missed home. My husband was my boyfriend at the time, he was here. My family was here. I decided to move back.”
Tran said she began to question whether medicine was a good fit for her.
“Nowadays, half the time is charting patients’ histories,” she said. “Most clinics are more geared to the number of patients than the quality that you are providing. When I saw the real life of a doctor it is kind of not what I wanted to do.”
She also realized how competitive it was to be a general surgeon, an occupation paying about $400,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Telling her parents was hard, because she didn’t want to disappoint them. They left Vietnam and a seafood business to give their children more opportunities. Of the four, Tran was always the one who would become a doctor.
“I did a lot of studying,” she said. “My dad always saw me as a doctor. He says I can do it. I say I can, but it’s not the end of the world. I can get my master’s degree and Ph.D. and be a professor. There are a lot of choices I can do.”
And her mom?
“She is still sad about it. She hopes that I can have a more full life than just this.”
Tran said some of her UW friends thought she was crazy to not keep going.
What’s crazier is where she wound up: Owning a convenience store and bar near the railroad tracks at a bend in the Snohomish River on the outskirts of town.
A family affair
The two-aisle grocery at 5203 S. Second Ave. is where locals pop in for bread, bait and lottery tickets or linger over a cold beer.
Tran’s husband, a Boeing mechanic, and her mom often pitch in, as do some in-laws. It’s a second home to her baby, Kaley.
Tran bought the market from Oanh Nguyen, a family friend who ran it for 17 years.
Nguyen, 59, still plays a big role, as cook, cashier and doting auntie. Kaley often rides on her hip as she works the register. During lulls, Nguyen takes the child outside to toddle on the sidewalk and wave to people.
“The customers that come here, I know them all,” Nguyen said. “That’s what I love.”
The store has hundreds of items crammed into cluttered yet orderly shelves: Diapers. Dog food. Soap. Soup. Birthday candles. Cereal. Superglue. Radiator sealer. Fishing lures.
The market is a magnet for the homeless who camp under nearby underpasses, then come seeking a cold drink or sundry, and don’t always have the means to pay for it.
Shoplifting is a problem, even with security cameras and a door chime that sets off a loud, annoying beep whenever customers enter or leave.
In the entry is a Washington’s Lottery plaque for the sale of a winning Hit 5 ticket of $550,000 in 2008. It’s amid the numerous photos and newspaper stories plastering the walls about Lowell’s 155-year-old history.
Tran never figured she’d be part of the old mill town’s future. She’d never been to Lowell and, like many people, didn’t even know it existed.
Eat in or out
After Tran returned from New York in May 2016, she started looking for a business to buy. Nguyen was looking for someone to take over her market.
A deal was struck in September 2016.
Tran saw the market through fresh eyes and as a place with potential to reach customers beyond Lowell.
“My mom taught me to cook when I was 12,” Tran said. “She had worked for several restaurants around here, in Lynnwood and Edmonds, so she knows what recipes are good. We combined what we knew and made our own menu.”
It’s a mix of bar fare and Asian cuisine. Items include calamari, cole slaw, tofu, tater tots, chicken strips, curly fries, pineapple fried rice, steak and desserts.
A Vietnamese sandwich is $4.99. A 14-ounce rib-eye dinner is $13.99. The restaurant isn’t the money-maker, but it’s starting to catch on. Delivery is available through Uber Eats.
To honor her heritage, Tran hung red paper lanterns in the bar. To attract sports fans, she put in three TVs. To keep up with discerning tastes, she added craft beers and wines.
Tran put in more drink coolers, lining the walls like a fortress of soda, milk, juice, water and energy drinks. At the ready are 15 flavors for bubble tea, made while you wait.
“Whatever you’re in the mood for, you can get it here,” said regular Scott Green, who lives less than two blocks away and works in global security at Microsoft. “I’ve tried everything on the menu.”
He stopped in with his dad for a beer break on a recent afternoon of errands.
“They have a good selection of microbrews on tap,” he said.
More than beer hits the spot for him in Lowell.
“There’s a community here,” Green said. “I grew up in Kirkland and lived in Seattle and I never knew my neighbors very well or cared to. But here it’s important.”
Off the beaten path
At the 41st Street exit off I-5, Evergreen Cemetery is on the west side. Turn east for Lowell, and a small community from the past unfolds.
The town was founded in 1863 and named after Lowell, Massachusetts, with visions it, too, would be an industrial giant. In its heyday, it had a hotel, sawmill, store, post office and wharf.
Now, there’s a park, a church, a tattoo parlor and several other businesses amid the mainly older homes. What used to be an affordable place to live now has a 1,500-square-foot bungalow fetching $350,000.
A 346-page book, “150 Years of Lowell History,” details the past of the town that was annexed into Everett in 1962.
The long, low Riverview Market & Cafe is one of the newer buildings. It was erected in 1957 for additional Simpson Paper Company offices. It was where employees clocked in.
Its once-sleek, mid-century modern look sports ad banners; the backs of coolers cover the windows.
Still, the exterior belies what’s inside. You’d never suspect that in back there’s a full bar with big windows and a panoramic view of the tracks and, when the leaves are gone, the river valley.
Off the bar with seven stools and five tables, is a balcony with more seats and some ashtrays where customers can enjoy a smoke against a scenic backdrop disrupted by the clamor of passing trains or, on quiet nights, the songs of frogs.
Look down and there’s a back yard with blooming irises and plastic pink flamingos. It’s not an optical illusion. The building is actually two stories. The market is at street level. Below are two apartments that can’t be seen from the front.
The yard art and flowers are the doings of Paul Kindrachuck, a tenant below for six years and a Lowell native. The trains can be a pain, he said, but on clear nights, the sky is filled with stars.
“It’s like my own little paradise,” said Kindrachuck, 56, a King County Housing Authority maintenance worker. All the food, drink and company he needs is upstairs.
A Yelp reviewer put it this way: “A little bar, really funky, good clientele, good service, television, trains rolling by below, interesting view … Really, it’s just its own time and place as the modern world speeds along outside. Maybe Lowell time is a separate reality but it suits me well.”
Where else does $20 buy a steak with a loaded baked potato, house salad and an IPA, plus maybe the rumble of a train or two?
It might not be the most romantic place to dine, but it is the only one in Lowell.
“My room in New York was really small,” Tran said. “It might be your bathroom size. My one window faced another wall across the building, not facing to the outside. Every day I go to school, spend eight hours, then go home and look outside at another wall of a building.”
She kept up her grades but was failing emotionally.
“I missed home. My parents and my boyfriend. It built up in me. I was in a big depression.”
She harbors no regrets about the “just this” that is her life.
“I think back about it. I was telling my husband the other day, if I was still in New York, we might have broke up; long-distance relationships never work out very well. We would not have a house here. We would not have a baby. There’s always pros and cons to everything.
“I have a happy family and to me that is the most important thing. A career you can get anytime.”